When Alisa Shtromberg learned her mother had fallen very ill, she called her boss to explain she was getting on a plane and would understand if she did not have a job when she returned.
However, her boss at Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech) in Kirkland was understanding, telling Shtromberg to take the time she needed. Fortunately, as the school’s website and digital content manager, she was able to work part time off site.
In addition, Shtromberg said her colleagues were there for her. Not only did they donate vacation time so she could be away from work for about three and a half months, they also pitched in and helped her family back home, cooking meals and bringing them to her husband and two kids.
And when Shtromberg finally came back to LWTech, her coworkers continued to give her family food and also gave her space to re-acclimate to being back at work.
“I felt supported the whole time” she said.
While this was the case for Shtromberg, she came to understand that not everyone at LWTech has felt the same, and she was surprised to learn that there were people who still feel like they are on the outside of things.
To address this, the college has been working for nearly a year to create a community of belonging.
LWTech president Amy Morrison said the work has mostly been focused internally on the college’s faculty and staff. Though she noted that the school has opened its Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success and RISE (Resources for Inclusion, Support and Empowerment) Center for students in November 2016 and in October 2017, respectively.
She said at LWTech, they are preparing students for the workplace and a number of those students will end up working at global organizations.
“They have to be able to have cultural competencies,” Morrison said, adding that if this is what they are striving for with their students, they would need to model it in their own workplace first. They wanted to get their house of belonging in order before turning things externally, she said.
Sharon Raz, a social science faculty member at the school, agreed. She said as a college that serves many different people from many different backgrounds, it is important to ensure they feel like they belong. But if you as a staff member don’t feel like you belong, how can you pass that feeling on to students?
“(Equity, diversity and inclusion) is the plan,” Morrison said of the school’s strategic planning. “It’s not a separate plan. It’s integral to the plan.”
And it’s not just lip service. LWTech staff is putting in the work. This has included the formation of an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) council that has organized a number of training days for staff this school year.
Morrison also acknowledged that just because the school held these trainings doesn’t mean they are done. She said building a community of belonging is an ongoing effort.
“It’s work,” she said. “It’s not a destination.”
The first training was held in September 2018. On that day, employees read letters written by other employees aloud during an all-college meeting. The letters described experiences in which employees felt they did not belong at LWTech as well as experiences when they did feel like they belonged.
“It was very eye opening,” said Suzanne Ames, vice president of instruction at LWTech.
Ames, who sits on the EDI council and is a member of the subcommittee focused on community building and professional development for employees, added it was the first step in raising awareness that some employees at the school did not feel welcomed at LWTech.
Since the beginning of the school year, there have been two more all-staff training days at LWTech. Those were in March and April and featured Robert V. Taylor, who serves as board chair of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation as well as on the board for the Endowment for Equal Justice. He was also the founding chair of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County.
When Taylor came in March, he focused on the philosophy of “Ubuntu,” a southern African term meaning, “I am because you are.” He said the idea is, “I need you to be your best so I can be my best.”
During the first training, Taylor and school employees focused on the assets people bring to the group: their own stories, their own voices, empathy and kindness.
Taylor discussed bridging tools that can build that community of belonging — joy, curiosity, imagination and compassion. He also talked about barriers that come with those efforts — unconscious bias, labels, privilege and shame.
It was at the training day that Shtromberg shared her story about her mother with about 300 of her colleagues. Similar to that first all-college meeting at the beginning of the school year, people shared personal experiences they had on campus. And with a focus on empathy, joy and kindness Shtromberg volunteered to share.
“All I just kept saying was, ‘Don’t cry,’” she said of what she told herself as she addressed the crowd.
The second training day with Taylor focused on brainstorming strategies on actual actionable items the school could implement to create the community they want to have on campus.
Ames said some items include creating opportunities for people to meet new employees and get to know them in meaningful ways as well as holding trainings on implicit bias. The latter will be introduced next month as a pilot training while a college-wide training on the topic is planned for the fall, Ames said.
Raz, who also sits alongside Ames on the EDI council and subcommittee, said this type of work is important to her personally. As an immigrant from Israel, a country experiencing conflict, social justice and addressing inequality is something she is passionate about.
“This is one of my goals in life, to make people feel like they belong,” she said.
For the two trainings led by Taylor, LWTech closed the campus so no classes were held. That made it easier for people to attend.
Shtromberg said closing the campus showed her the employer’s commitment to the cause and to the work.
“At the end of the day, ultimately, you want to see progress…The work is never done…We’re all evolving. It’s the human condition,” she said. “…To make that kind of commitment (to close the campus), I think it’s great.”
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@ soundpublishing.com.